A Special Study on Magic
Guest post by MICHAEL EDMISTON
Magic is not dead. It never died, it merely slumbers, just beneath the surface of our modern, materialist, techno-industrial globalized culture. Magic has been with us since the beginning. It is practiced in some form by every culture in the world, and has been throughout history. Today, though we in the Western, “developed” world often pride ourselves on our rationality, our objectivity, on our coldly pragmatic calculations of cost and benefit, we still feel the siren song of the irrational, the mystical, the magical, and it lurks within good luck charms, wishes, knocking on wood, the special “aura” of emotionally resonant objects, prayers for divine intervention, “jinxes”, and even within our civilization’s most ubiquitous and practical products.
The cellular phones we all carry in our pockets resemble (when powered off) the black scrying mirrors used by magicians for divinations, as does every television and computer screen. These come to life at our touch, showing us endless streams of visions and even giving us answers to our questions through the oracle known as Google, yet the deep secrets of their production and function are known only to a select few, and nobody understands all aspects of how they work. As Rene Magritte pointed out, “everything we see hides another thing”. Magic hides behind these screens, behind so much of what we see every day, underneath the skin of what most would consider mundane.
Atheism, agnosticism and other forms of secularism may be on the rise, and the ancient religions dead and gone, but the old Gods never left us. They live in the days of the week, in the months, in the names of the stars and planets, in the old holidays still celebrated at the turning of the seasons. Recently, we have even called down the powers of the Gods to earth and their terrible might is at our very fingertips. Thor’s thunder runs through the countless cables and webs of wires that are the nervous systems of our cities.
When Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the detonation of the atomic bomb, he might have made any number of comments, but he chose a quote from the ancient Indian epic, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. The line is spoken by the God Vishnu, and it is a fitting statement, for we do have the power to cause death and destruction on a scale far beyond any other animal, even to destroy the world many times over, and nuclear fire is not the only way we might do so.
Technology like the nuclear bomb is not generally thought of as Magic, but consider the classic fantasy image of a Wizard conjuring balls of fire to hurl at his enemies. What exactly is the difference between such an act and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? A nuclear weapon is massively more destructive, though we do also have other instruments of burning death: napalm, flamethrowers, and the multitude of guns and bombs that stock the arsenals of all the nations of the world.
These technologies are restricted to certain groups of people, and the more powerful they are, the fewer people who can access them or even understand their operation. The knowledge needed to comprehend the complex calculations required to create a nuclear weapon is so deep and specialized that only a handful of people can lay claim to it. Nuclear Physics, though it can be learned by anyone with enough time and dedication, is so esoteric that it might as well be magical. Specialized scientific expertise is perhaps the only widely accepted and respected form of occult knowledge in today’s society.
Yet, the magical, the mystical and the occult also arise in countless other forms in our culture. One need look no farther than popular fiction to witness the massive upwelling of interest in magic and the paranormal. Consider Harry Potter, that astoundingly successful breakaway book and movie series that made J.K. Rowling a multi-millionaire almost overnight.
There are a multitude of other examples of Magic appearing in popular fiction, from television shows such as “Buffy: the Vampire Slayer” and “Bewitched” to the countless fantasy novels featuring magical protagonists, from “The Lord of the Rings” to “A Wizard of Earthsea”. As Victoria Nelson puts it, “In the current Aristotelian age, the transcendental has been forced underground, where it has found a distorted outlet outside the recognized boundaries of religious expression… we turn to works of the imagination to learn how our living desire to believe in a transcendent reality has survived outside our conscious awareness.”